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Why should I limit my child's screen time?

A recent study found that parental restriction and discussion of their children’s media use predicted more sleep, better school performance, more prosocial behaviors, and fewer aggressive behaviors.

A friend of mine recently punished his 9-year-old by taking away screen time for a whole month.  Professionally, I tend to recommend that loss-of-privilege punishments last no more than 24 hours except for the most startling of misbehaviors, but, blessedly for both of us, my friend didn't ask my opinion.

When I did inquire as to how things were going (sympathetic that, for many parents, the only time which they have any peace is when their children are in front of a screen), he answered gleefully: "It's going great!! It's only been a week and HE IS A CHANGED CHILD!  He's happier, more helpful, less like a slug! Now when we tell him to stop whatever he is doing and come sit for dinner, he doesn't drag his feet away from some dumb video game, but literally bounds right over. He's a delight!"

New research published online this month in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that, indeed, limiting screen time can result in a cascade of positive effects.

In their study, Douglas Gentile, PhD, and colleagues looked at a group of third, fourth, and fifth graders who were enrolled in an obesity prevention program. They were screened on total screen time use and – most importantly – amount of parental monitoring of that screen time. "Parental monitoring" was defined in the study as a combination of how much a parent limited screen time as well as actively discussed the content of anything that was viewed with their child.

The children were measured on a host of other variables, including media violence exposure, school performance, social wellness (defined as frequency of observed prosocial and aggressive behaviors toward peers), and physical wellness (defined as both amount of sleep and Body Mass Index). The children were followed for one school year and then these same things were measured again.

Upshot of the study? Parental restriction and discussion of their children's media use predicted more sleep (which in turn predicted lower BMI), better school performance, more prosocial behaviors and fewer aggressive behaviors.

This study was the first of its kind in that it was prospective (followed kids over time to measure changes rather than relying on data collected at just a single point in time) and examined parental monitoring of media on a wide variety of health and wellness outcomes.  Other strengths included a large sample size (over 1,300 children) and data collected from a variety of sources – children, parents, teachers, and school nurses.

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